A postcard from Shipston-on-Stour
PUBLISHED: 11:08 14 February 2018
I send my postcard from Shipston-on-Stour, a small self-contained Warwickshire town which is perfect in size, perfect in detail
Shipston-on-Stour has its own two-week summer Proms festival, numerous unique independent shops, cosy pubs and in the warmer weather perfect picnic spots by the river banks. As I visit on a somewhat colder, wet day, my spirit is lifted by the warmth and genuine kindness of the people who seek to keep this compact community thriving. It’s over a year since my last visit, but it’s heartening to see that new businesses have arrived to complement the diverse shopping experience. It’s not surprising then that Shipston-on-Stour earned the title as best place to live in the Midlands by the Sunday Times.
• A good starting point for any shopping trip to Shipston is Taste of the Country in Market Place which has been part of the town’s community since 2006. With over 30 cheeses including Vacherin Mont d’or, Quicke’s goats’ milk cheese and back by popular demand Montgomery Cheddar, this specialist shop celebrates local British food, champions the tray bake and is famous for its iced gingerbread. (We go home with a pig). Its dark chocolate brownie has already won two Gold Stars in the National Great Taste Awards and who can’t resist a seasonal cranberry and orange version or indeed a pecan or peanut butter one (which is yummy)? General Manager Mandy Lane believes 2018 looks a positive one for the town. “We are not an obvious tourist choice but we are a proper working town, with plenty to see, pubs, inns and shops which are mostly owned by local independent traders. I am hoping we will get on the map a bit more so people will get to know the town’s unique qualities.”
• Next door is a great new addition to the town. The Bower House, which opened in March 2017, acts as a restaurant, bar and coffee shop with a home from home setting. It also has five beautiful rooms on the top two floors to enable visitors to prolong their stay in Shipston. This Grade II listed building, originally built in 1731, provides a gorgeous setting for dining or chatting over coffee and we are given a warm welcome from Tracey and Paul Merrony, who moved from London to take over the management six months ago.
• Two new additions to add to the eclectic shopping experiences for both locals and visitors can be found in Granville Court off the High Street. Both owned by Sally Cahill, Arbour specializes in gardens, gifts and lifestyle whilst Campden Couture offers on-trend clothing and accessories which are inspiring and affordable to make the customer look and feel good.
• What I love about Shipston is the healthy mix between the new and long-established faithfuls. Shipston’s longest surviving business is E.H. Spencer, a traditional gentlemen’s outfitters and shoe shop in Market Place which has been serving customers for 116 years. Today it’s run by John Rutter, E.H. Spencer’s grandson, who shares the same passion. “It’s great working here, it’s my life. I really enjoy coming to work. The other day one person came in and said five generations of their family have used our shop,” John tells us. I discreetly ask if anyone famous has too? His reply: “We have had an ex-deputy prime minister but I am not saying who and a number of theatrical and television personalities.”
• Another Shipston faithful, although quite a youngster in comparison, is Time in Hand, which has served as a workshop and showroom, selling and restoring fine clocks, timepieces, clocks and barometers for 38 years. Owner Francis Bennett is a master in clock and watch making. Shop manager Beverlie White says the town has stood the test of time in many ways. “Shipston has changed over the years, but it still has a great selection of privately owned shops. We have about 50 which is an impressive number for a small town, and we were voted as the best place to live,” she says. Beverlie refers to the Sunday Times’ accolade voting Shipston as best place to live in the Midlands.
• The town does seem to have everything. From its earliest days, the community has known how to celebrate in style. In the past celebrations have been held for coronations, Monarch’s birthdays and anniversaries, annual Mop Fairs and Ox-roasts. Today the town enjoys an annual Wool Fair, Christmas Victorian Evening and a fortnight of live jazz, folk, blues, rock and classical music, known as The Shipston Proms. In 2018, this event celebrates its 20th anniversary and culminates with everyone gathering for the last night to listen to amazing bands and celebrate the history of Shipston’s hospitality with a glass of cheer on Market Place.
• Another relatively new enterprise is Totally Locally Shipston, set up in 2014 to encourage people to re-assess what is on their doorstep and use local shops, whilst helping businesses to look at their suppliers, and start looking at ways to work together. Those involved are always seeking to promote the town in new and exciting ways.
• One of my favourite haunts in Shipston is London House Antiques, which takes me back to my childhood days of looking in my Grannie’s attic. Displaced objects from another time and place are picked up by those who remember having similar items – tools used to stoke the fire, hats, children’s books of long ago, hair pins, vintage signs, the list is endless. A good hour is needed to look round properly.
• I also pop into The Stour Gallery, a stunning three-storey building now showing its Winter Exhibition, featuring Royal Academicians such as Terry Frost and Sandra Blow, as well as paintings, original prints, sculpture, ceramics and jewellery from emerging artists and those with established reputations. This runs until March 2018. Established 20 years ago, the gallery is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-5.30pm or by appointment.
• One of the special qualities about Shipston is its buildings. The delightful Georgian building which houses The Richard Harvey Collection makes the whole shopping experience a fun one, especially as customers can meander through, go out through a door and into an old Baptist Chapel, which acts as an extended showroom. Richard and his wife Louise have a passion for interior design, especially furniture and home furnishings that have enduring style. “Customers always comment that they love the eclectic sensory experience of walking through the shop for its lights, colour, movement and smells and then they find the old chapel at the end,” says Carole Taylor, shop manager.
• We end our trip to Shipston at the Black Horse pub, the town’s oldest inn and only thatched building. On the pub’s front wall is one of the oldest surviving post boxes in the country, placed there during Victoria’s reign as shown by the letters ‘VR’ (Victoria Regina). This Cotswold stone building which dates back to 1540, survived the second great fire that the town suffered in 1726. The first great fire took place in 1478 when 50 homes were burnt down, representing almost the entire town’s houses. Ironically it is the fireplace I am drawn to in this pub. Its cosy fireplace is much appreciated on a cold day and warms me up ready for the long drive home.